NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - With new coronavirus cases low but rising sharply in recent days, the city of Philadelphia announced on Monday (April 11) it will reinstate an indoor mask mandate a little more than a month after lifting it, becoming the first major US city to do so.
"This is our chance to get ahead of the pandemic," Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole said in a news conference. She acknowledged that the average number of daily new cases, currently at 142, is still nowhere near what it was at the beginning of the year, when the Omicron variant was pushing the seven-day average to nearly 4,000.
But she said that if the city failed to require masks now, "knowing that every previous wave of infections has been followed by a wave of hospitalisations, and then a wave of deaths, then it will be too late for many of our residents."
Over the past week, the city reported that the number of residents who had died of Covid-19 passed 5,000.
The mandate will go into effect next week. A spokesperson for the city's Health Department said it would end when case numbers and rates go beneath a certain threshold.
The decision comes as cases are ticking up across the country, fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron subvariant, known as BA.2. Although the national increase is so far relatively small - about 3 per cent over the past two weeks - the growth in cases in northeastern cities such as New York City and Washington, D.C., has been significantly steeper. Some colleges in the northeast, including Columbia, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, have reinstated indoor mask mandates in recent days.
Under Philadelphia's Covid-19 response plan, mitigation measures are triggered when caseloads or case trajectories pass certain thresholds. Since early March, as Omicron swiftly receded, the city had been at Level 1, or "all clear", meaning most mandatory measures - including indoor mask mandates as well as proof-of-vaccine requirements in restaurants - had been lifted. Masks have no longer been required at city schools, although people visiting hospitals or riding public transportation still have had to wear them.
The indoor mask mandate is reinstated automatically when the city rises to Level 2, in which average new daily case counts and hospitalisations are still low but "cases have increased by more than 50 per cent in the previous 10 days". The Health Department spokesperson said that over the past 10 days, the average number of new cases had risen nearly 70 per cent.
Philadelphia's system "allows us to be clear, transparent and predictable in our response to local Covid-19 conditions", Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement after the announcement was made. "I'm optimistic that this step will help us control the case rate."
The decision is at odds with the recommendation from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Basing its designation on hospital admissions among other bench marks, the CDC considers Philadelphia to have a "low" community level, and thus does not advise required masking.
Asked about the difference, Bettigole emphasised that "local conditions do matter" in making these decisions, and brought up the inequities in the virus's effect.
"We've all seen here in Philadelphia, how much our history of redlining, history of disparities has impacted, particularly our Black and brown communities in the city," she said. "And so it does make sense to be more careful in Philadelphia, then, you know, perhaps in an affluent suburb."